Nickname: "White Shoes"
Position: Punt Returner
Team: Houston Oilers
Career: One of only two Oilers to make the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team (Ken Houston, the other), Billy Johnson knew how to draw attention. How did a tiny man (5′ 9") from a tiny school (Division III Widener College), a lowly 15th-round draft choice to boot, achieve such a tall honor? Excitement.
It helped to have a nickname and a gimmick. That’s where "White Shoes" comes in. "I wore the shoes just to be different in high school," says Billy. "But our coach was a real no-frills guy. He saw the shoes, called me over and asked me what was up. I told him the shoes made me run faster. So I got to keep them."
Running fast is what Johnson did best but the big colleges weren’t interested in some little guy who wore glasses, even if he did have white shoes. At Widener, Billy was better than the competition, averaging over 250 all-purpose yards per game. He was eventually voted to the College Football Hall Of Fame.
Billy was picked by the Oilers in 1974 over the initial objections of GM/Head Coach Sid Gillman who didn’t want a "midget" on his team. Johnson made the squad as a kick returner but also managed to work his way into the offense, catching two touchdown passes. That’s when he began another attention-getting practice — a celebration dance. "It just happened," smiles Johnson about his first NFL touchdown boogie. "It was spontaneous."
The dance began with the knees flying in opposite directions then flying back together as if they would knock. The ball might be held aloft or he might start moving it under his legs or behind his back. In later years, White Shoes added new moves such as a fake toss into the stands and the splits. Teammates learned not to rush to congratulate him after he scored but to wait until his performance was over.
Getting into the end zone was part of the fun. Johnson would often do this with turn-on-a-dime, water bug moves that left defenders waving at air. He would reverse field or lose yardage to get that big return, a tactic most coaches would disapprove of — but not Bum Phillips. "Billy is an equal-opportunity runner," quipped Phillips. "He gives everyone an equal chance to tackle him."
1975 was Johnson’s breakout season, tying an NFL mark with four kick returns for touchdowns (three by punt, one by kickoff) and snared 37 passes, one for a score. Billy caught 4 TD passes the next year, keeping defenses from doubling Ken Burrough. In 1977, White Shoes was everywhere – scoring three times on kicks and three more on pass plays. He made the Pro Bowl for the second time.
Injuries stole much of the 1978 and 1979 seasons. He was well enough in 1980 to grab two touchdown passes but, by now, Philips had found other kick returners and the aging Oilers were on the verge of rebuilding. Unsigned, Johnson spent a year in the Canadian Football League before retiring with the Falcons.
Johnson holds both the Oilers’ record for punt return yardage and is currently third all-time behind Dave Meggett and Brian Mitchell. He currently works with the Atlanta Falcons in community outreach.
Houston Highlight: The 1976 Pro Bowl, held in New Orleans, was Johnson’s first appearance on a national stage. Billy grabbed a punt from Detroit’s Herman Weaver, moved down the right sideline, dodged two defenders and sailed to a 90-yard touchdown. His return, and the 159 total return yards, are still Pro Bowl records. He was named the Pro Bowl MVP even though his AFC team lost, 23-20.